Winter New Mexico Jan 05—11, 2011

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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On the first afternoon of our Winter New Mexico tour, we were greeted by an incredible avian sight—an estimated 16,000 Yellow-headed Blackbirds coming in to roost at a marsh in west El Paso. The telephone lines were so tightly jammed with birds that it was hard to separate one individual from another. The wires were coated in yellow and black like some lengthy, bizarre string of yarn. The cattails and salt cedars had so many birds that it was simply impossible to count. Spectacles such as this characterize this trip. Whether it is large concentrations of blackbirds, geese, cranes, or sparrows, this area plays host to an amazing density of birds every winter. In addition, many southwestern specialties are readily seen, making for superb winter birding.

On our first full day we birded the Rio Grande Valley southeast of El Paso. Highlights were many, with close, side by side views of Cackling and Ross's geese, two Greater Scaup from about 20 feet, all three merganser species (including a flock of over 500 Common Mergansers), several Harris's Hawks, Prairie Falcon, Gambel's Quail, an adorable pair of Burrowing Owls, very cooperative Crissal Thrashers, Lark Buntings, and Brewer's Sparrows among the more noteworthy. Later in the day we enjoyed Red-naped Sapsucker and Red-breasted Nuthatches at a local park, and a Merlin, Anna's Hummingbird, and a very rare Hooded Oriole in my backyard.

We spent the next day in the scenically spectacular Organ Mountains east of Las Cruces. Sparrows were in abundance with Black-throated, Sage (amazing views from 15 feet away), Brewer's, Black-chinned, Rufous-crowned, Cassin's (very rare here in winter), Grasshopper (casual in this area), and Green-tailed Towhee (stunningly close studies) among the more noteworthy. Also seen were a magnificent pair of Golden Eagles, Scaled Quail, five Long-eared Owls, Hutton's Vireo, a fantastic Canyon Wren up-close-and-personal, Sage Thrasher, and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher among others.

Heading northward up the Rio Grande, we hit remnant cottonwood forests and sycamore-lined creeks in the vicinity of Truth or Consequences. A wonderful Ferruginous Hawk and another Prairie Falcon were enjoyed along the way. Sandhill Cranes began to appear in the agricultural fields. At Percha State Park we had Hammond's Flycatcher (rare here in winter), a spectacular male Vermilion Flycatcher, Western Bluebirds, a very rare Winter Wren, Phainopepla, Lincoln's Sparrow, and an interesting leucistic Ladder-backed Woodpecker. Nearby Animas Creek produced Acorn Woodpecker, Bridled Titmouse, and Eastern Bluebird. A late afternoon stop at Elephant Butte Reservoir was wildly productive with four very rare Brown Pelicans, two Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and five California Gulls among the more regular fare.

The next day we continued northward, birding the oaks and junipers of Water Canyon (Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit, Steller's Jay, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend's Solitaire) and then on to world-famous Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. We spent the late afternoon here watching group after group of Sandhill Cranes (an estimated 7,000+ were at the refuge) coming into a pond to roost, with an incredible rose and orange sunset as a backdrop.

Our final day was spent at the refuge in the morning (loads of geese—including a massive dawn takeoff, abundant close-up waterfowl, Ring-necked Pheasant, eight Bald Eagles, two more Prairie Falcons, and Great Horned Owl) before heading northward to Sandia Crest. Unfortunately, some snow moved into the higher elevations, causing slow-going up the mountain and difficult conditions at the top. Despite the challenging weather, all three rosy-finch species were seen. A final stop at the Rio Grande Nature Center yielded many Wood Ducks, in addition to Eastern Bluebird, Black-capped Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, and a wonderfully close Greater Roadrunner for a send-off.

In all we tallied 158 species, with many rarities and lots of highly sought southwestern specialties. During every day but the last we enjoyed very nice weather with lows near freezing, but highs in the low 60s. At this same time much of the country was being pounded by either ice or snow and bone-chilling temperatures.